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I had a heck of a fun weekend hiking with wifey and Brody del Toro so not much time to finish the Applying to PhD Programs post. Tune in tomorrow for the dramatic conclusion.
Note: this post is taken from something I had written originally as a response to a reading for a class I took during my master’s. I place it here because I think the work it discusses, John Rastell’s New Boke of Purgatory (ca. 1530), is interesting and not widely known. Anyone looking to find the original source material can find it on Early English Books Online (EEBO) STC 20719. The piece is in response to G.E. Aylmer’s chapter entitled “Unbelief in Seventeenth-Century England” in Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth-Century History Presetned to Christopher Hill (1978).

Rastell’s New Boke of Purgatory presents an interesting attempt at arguing for faith from a reasoned standpoint. Not only does the ‘Mohametan’ Gyngemin the Turk wish to argue using only reason, but he will not permit any reference to scripture to argue reasonably for the existence of god or anything else. This is an interesting rhetorical trick that Rastell attempts to play, using the interlocutor of the Muslim (see: Heathen, Atheist, etc) to argue fundamentally Christian beliefs inter alia of God, the afterlife, the immortality of the soul, but it ultimately fails because, while not using scripture from Christianity or Islam explicitly, the arguments he makes are based on assumed beliefs which originate in scripture.

What I find most interesting about this dialogue is the attempt by Rastell to, upfront, declare that this will be a reasoned argument for religion; what is argued afterward is sort of inconsequential if we’re only looking at the rhetoric. Even though it was a false reason there is, in the attempt, a signalled change in perception as to how these arguments ought to proceed. We have moved from the debates between Catholics and Protestants (even though they still rage on) to, what seems to me, conversion and appeal to those who may have atheistic tendencies. This is a move which anticipates the new science that Aylmer discusses comes about with Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century. There is little question that the new science changed the game for good and made the fundamental arguments for religion (outlined in Aylmer) in need of an update in rhetoric, even if the premises remain unaltered.

Does this mean that there was more or less atheism in the seventeenth century? I’m with Aylmer in saying I have no idea and it’s kind of fruitless to go about proving that anyway. It can be argued, however, that the fear was there on the part of believers and has never gone away, whatever the definition of atheism might be. As I read more in this topic the more it becomes apparent that the divide between faith and reason is growing increasingly wide in the early modern period. Aylmer’s last point about the question of God having remained essentially unchanged and, “by definition – permit(ting) of no answer” (46) is the soundbyte by which many of the arguments from faith and reason ought to be couched.

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